Friday, July 30, 2010

We're being taken for a ride again

I've been obsessing over the free Wifi here at Abu Dhabi Int'l Airport, and its been nice. Instead of burning through my book before the Manila leg, I've gotten to be able to get some writing done. And because this is my first time in (the airport of) non-Palestinian Arabistan, I have ignorant things to say about it. Harking to John Le Carre's comment that you can only write about a place if you just got there and everything is coming at you at 100 mph or if you've lived there for 20 years, here's my version of the former.

As an airport, holy Moses it's better than Newark. The airport is a great ad for Abu Dhabi itself...I certainly want to come back to scope the scene. It is clean, the staff is friendly, and everything work at a fundamental level. I got decent sleep and good coffee (Costa Coffee, for the record). I wholly support all of this. Self-confidence without the end-of-an-empire shab that Newark had.

That said, there is a distinct Euro-Gulf-Subcontinent-East Indies divide. People hang out with their sort in a painfully obvious way, but I supppose at least the hierarchy isn't too obvious (besides in screening lines). Except that everyone seems to have a pet Afghan. The NYTimes ain't alone in that.

Everyone who cares whos spent time here has something to say about the master-servant of it all. And does that exist? Yeah, probably. But again, at least one isn't beaten over the head with it. Swept under the rug, but I'm sure still there for some rights-bro to get worked up about.

Although as foreign to me (if not moreso) then when I plopped into Ashgabat, it is certainly less confrontationally foreign here. And am I going to hold myself back before I do a frightening disservice by comparing things to Syriana? Yes. Yes I am.

But the bottom line is...I like it, ok? The joint is well-run and I'd like to come back. And besides, the desert beckons. Just looking out into that void (and the awesome control tower that stands in it) makes me excited. There's something cool out there.  Something worth seeing and doing. In related news, I wanna go falconing real real bad.

And in a  final note, it is worth noting how little we, as a culture, know or care to know about the Gulf. The bubble ideal of "The Gulf" exists, but even this layover is enough to get me asking 40 different questions. I know nothing of this 'hood. I would like to change that. Because I can see myself liking it. From a really morose and lachrymose trip over here, I've become overwhelmed with brotherhood and companionship for my fellow man. Ummmm that's weird.

So those are my cringe-worthy thoughts that I will surely look back on one day and laugh. Or, more likely, have held against me by someone who actually knows what they're talking about. I've been played enough on this year, might as well set myself up to be played again. At least the ensuing stories ought to be more interesting than the current ones.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Food Crush: Semiz Otu

Humid at morning, tourists take warning.

I've always thought that the Princes' Islands of Istanbul where the best exile you could get. We're in the middle of a nasty humid snap here, a snap that's taken the whole summer really. A snap that, along with a sudden, ugly, raise in Southeastern tensions (best documented here) has led to a grumpier summer than most. It was time to make like Snake and escape from the mainland. A reverse Theodosia, if you will.

And I was fortunate enough to be invited to Burgazada by a travel writer and historian who I can safely liken to a Byzantine Rain Man. You know, walk past an old building and he goes "Paleologue...definitely Paleologue. Probably Manuel V" and the sort.

As you well know, the Islands are fantastic. Break of humidity, salty sea air, and riots of blooms. All fantastic stuff. But what needs to be shared is the semiz otu. We stumbled into a Greek joint named "Barba Yani" for mezes and raki to stabilize us for our climb. Nothing prepares for a mountain jaunt better than a couple double-rakis, believe us.

Called "Purslane" in English, semiz otu is a clover-looking weed that just happens to be delicious and pure summer. Bitter and full of greenyness, they're fantastic raw and really shouldn't be cooked. The freshness on a nasty summer day is key here.

Some folk may want to chop it up and put it in a salad, I'm a fan of mixing it with yogurt and cucumber. You can get it for free at most grocers in this town. I've already gone through one bunch...the older we get, the more cold-blooded we get, and the more cold, crisp, things get us through to August.

So whether you're getting your crampons out for Uludag or just sitting out in the sun all afternoon, find some semizotu. Mix with yogurt, cucumber, and an equal amount of raki. Dabble in both and pontificate on the death of old empires and the rise of new ones. Now you, too, can be unemployed and an ostensible writer-sort like our Burgaz guide.

Or ourselves

/Cries

/Pours another raki and breaks out more semiz otu.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Blog Roundup where I just discovered Twitter

This Twitter thing. Fascinating. It will probably be the single greatest destruction to me productivity, since now I can just flit through fascinating articles instead of doing things. Well now, this is what I'm reading, and my take on it.

State Department has watched Gangs of New York, says "We don't have a gang, we have an army."
  • I'm not wholly comfortable with non-military contractors doing military things. Not for the OMG Security Nation! thing that WaPo is pushing, because that's a completely unsurprising non-issue. But it makes the money easier to hide, removes huge chunks of oversight, and isn't, you know, proven to be legal. The people quoted are right, there is going to be a lasting presence in Iraq one way or another. That's another unsurprising non-issue. But hiding the same guns under a different hat makes the invasion one step closer to imperial occupation. It makes the military that much more permanent by putting under State, which will, of course, always be in Iraq (and any other country with a US embassy, for the record). So as a carrier of one of the blue passports, it means that I'm that much closer to being an imperialist. That's kind of disconcerting.
Africa: Confusing, complicated, and not able to be dealt with comfortably in legislation.
  • I'm not going to act like I understand Congelese issues (except for Baloji, who is actually Belgian but hey), but I defer to Texas in Africa when I do. And this is, for me, the takeaway quote: "They don't understand why the overarching focus on minerals has come to dominate international discourse on the region while the vexing problems that actually drive the violence there - land tenure rights, citizenship rights, and the state's inability to establish a monopoly on violence - continue to fester." That is, with conflict minerals, the issue is the conflict, not the minerals. Minerals are going to be extracted one way or another, and it helps to be involved in some regard in order to guide the extraction to be somewhat sane. But that takes patience, a strong hand, and deep knowledge of the region. All of which are, of course, lacking. Really, its pretty similar to the Craig Murray and Uzbekistan drama, which I have been able to follow pretty well, and which there are two pretty distinct camps on. I'm firmly in the Hamm/Tucker "engagement is necessary" side, but there are plenty of smart people who aren't.
There's some dude with a Russian passport hanging out with the PKK
  • How Russian (versus vaguely Caucasian/Central Russian) with a name like Dadaev is up for debate, but its still one of those "huh weird" sort of moments that happen in the mountains. And hey, Zaman wants to tell YOU about Ergenekon!
Reporting from Afghanistan: Canada's doing it right
  • Interesting article about "Team Canada", some sort of armed NGO hybrid. It's an interesting read that makes you realize that there are no dichotomies in Afghanistan whatsoever so stop writing like there are because there's not did you hear me there's not. Plus, the "Afghanistan is basically just Manitoba" is one of my un-sarcastic favorite quotes out there.
Sunday School with Beards. It's still Sunday School
  • I'm sure somebody would love to spin this in some asinine way, but I love these sort of articles. Life in Exotic, Oriental, Central Asia...just kind of goes. People grow up, have kids, and want to raise their kids with intrinsic moral compasses. So they go to Sunday School and Summer Camps. This seems to be part of Schwartz's CyberChaikana project, which is pretty cool. And again, Tajikistan for Tajikistan's sake. Not everything that happens there is about their foreign policy. Sometimes kids just want to learn to read and ask if God has a big toe.
So that's the far-ranging reach of Twitter. Enjoy it and enjoy the weekend. More blogging, and more Big Happenings, coming up shortly. As well as some actually-well-written stuff and not the garbage that I've been spewing for a bit. Journalism ensuing, I swear.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

White-boy shuffle! or, the Sec. State Human Centipede

I have just been introduced to "The Cable", which is Foreign Policy Magazine's deep look into how the US Foreign Policy sausage is made. My views of FPM in its online version are pretty cynical. Then again, I am an acolyte at the Church of Yell. But I suppose somebody has to breathlessly report insider deals, so lets look at the ones that affect Turkey.

Josh Rogin is informing us that a battle is brewing over the new US ambassador to Turkey. The candidate is
...Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., is a 32-year veteran of the Foreign Service who most recently served as the deputy ambassador in Kabul. He's served in Ankara in the past and speaks fluent Turkish. Ricciardone also played a role in organizing the Iraqi exile community before the 2003 U.S. drive to Baghdad.
Which is quite the resume. I see one big steaming failure, one huge mark for, and one accomplice-in-a-miscegnated-attempt-at-empire-building. In short, an insider is on track for one of the most insidery jobs of all. This should not be a surprise.

We are also told, however, that Ricciardone was ambassador to Egypt in 2005, during this "Arab Spring" thing that I missed the first time around. Basically, because Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq had some elections, that meant that everything was supposed to go alright for the US. Except that Palestine elected Hamas, Lebanon has a Kafka-esque parliament system that helps Hezboallah succeed, and the term "Mission Accomplished" was about 2 years past being funny. So somehow its Ricciardone's fault that in Egypt, Mubarak did exactly what everyone thought he would do: chafe at giving the Muslim Brotherhood any voice and continue his autocratic reign. In short, we should be upset, maybe, that Riccardione didn't do the single most amazing diplomatic job since Camp David.

Look, there are two bullshit quotes in this article:
  • "the tenuous state of Turkey's relationship with the West."- GOP aide. What the hell does this mean? Will there be another earthquake, and the Bosphorus is going to widen by 200 miles, and the bridges will snap? Or does it mean that because it's not the Cold War anymore and Turkey has relationships with their non-NATO neighbors means that they're all wearing Turbans and shouting "Allah'u Akbar!" Turkey is as much a part of the West as the Chronicles of Narnia and Cheesecake. Stay focused on those mid-term elections
  • "Let's face it, there hasn't been much of an Obama effect in Turkey, so having an ambassador there who can get out among the people could be very useful." - Steven Cook. There's an old story about Turkmenbashi wearing a fake beard and being driven around Ashgabat in his State Limo. He goes up to Turkmen and asks them what they think of the way the country is going. Since Turkmenbashi's picture/statue is everywhere in Ashgabat, and nobody has a state limo besides T-Bash, the Turkmen he interviews have a good idea of who's asking, and what they should say...what I'm trying to say is, the Obama effect isn't real and ambassadors don't get a feel of the country by chatting up a kebabci.
Better quotes include, from the comments section, "wordpress is predictably hostile to the people of the United States, so look forward to your comments/remarks simply being passed over." I'm on Blogspot! USA! USA!

And my personal favorite: "'We don't need to put up much of a fight because things are moving so slowly anyway,' the aide said." Diplomacy...thunder made of slow. A buzzard eating the carcass of a sloth. You get the picture.


And just because I'm not done mocking this ridiculousness, here's the follow-up article.Boilerplate terms, assurances that Turkey, like Israel is a friend of the US, and that complicated issues are ahead. Throw in some "blah blah terrorism blah blah" and "Hey, the dude who has brought the gossip tense to anglophone journalism is going to Iraq" and you almost have enough filler for a story.

This right here is a lot of written words. It's all about nothing. If you're looking for a personality-driven field, it ain't diplomacy. The names of these guys doesn't mean anything...its all white dudes from old stock who are there to replace others who look like them and went to the same colleges as they did. And then they'll say the same thing. Diplomacy is only interesting when its done creatively. This is just silverbacks posturing. Do not be alarmed, shocked, or even give a wooden nickel about the stuff that FPM finds newsworthy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What's so funny 'bout Volleyball and Construction?

Turkey is an awesome country with one of my favorite foreign policies. Not because I agree with everything...that's hardly the case. But mostly because they're so damn interesting. Not zany in the Ghaddafi sense, but also not close-vested either.

Lest we forget, Turkey is a real place. They are displaying this through their "Hey, we build stuff internationally! Almost as much as the Chinese" articles coming through the grapevine. And its pretty fantastic indeed. All of the booming construction in Central Asia and the Middle East is coming through Turkish construction. Which is pretty awesome, considering the history of Turkish construction. Lost in all of the questions in ABC or CNN about "the Turkish direction" is the fact that Turkey's done a very good job of constructing a Near Abroad for themselves. And every single one of these huge construction companies has ties with the government, the military, and all of that. Halliburtonism is not an American monopoly.

That said, these things happen as well. And while there is no clear "Directive from Erdogan caused this" sort of thing, well, I mean, Turkey has taken the initiative in turning the Turkish-Israel relationship into what it is today. And I mean that with all due care.

Thats why its fascinating. how Turkey can act so much like a Real Important Country on one hand and be involved in these petty squabbles (Volleyball!) on the other. And its why I could never see things like the PKK issue happening in the US. Turks get so much money from construction in Kurdish Iraq...as cynical as it seems to bomb the countryside to boost the cities that're being built...that's a lot more sinister and a lot more clever than I'm willing to give anyone credit for. Its much more likely to be disjointed and clumsy.

Because that's where Turkish Foreign Policy is right now. Dancing across the line between "brilliant and deft" and "disjointed and clumsy." Poor Mr. Vela got his interview with Karayilan tortured by the Telegraph. Not only do we not spell "Recep" as "Recip" but also
A triple-bombing struck the resort of Marmaris in 2006, while a year later a suicide bomber struck a popular shopping street in the capital, Ankara. 
does not a pattern of bombings in make. The "oh scary terrorists make things go boom" part of the PKK is passe. Their smart maneuverings are more of the
He said the PKK would soon declare "democratic autonomy" in Kurdish regions of south-east Turkey. "If Turkey does not accept this, it is their problem," he said.
variety. Declaring your own autonomic republic, cutting off taxes, and thumbing your nose is a much more effective revolution than killing foreigners. The PKK is in no position to rely on the Barzanis and Talabanis in Iraq any longer, not with all of that aforementioned construction. So they're much better off burning bridges and calling it autonomy.

And Turkish foreign policy is still trying to figure out their internal policing. For all of Davutoglu's genius, he hasn't been able to make a singular theory of foreign policy yet. And until then, its the jerk-stop-leap of the AKP years past. I'm not as smart as Davutoglu, I'm not able to think of anything clever enough to serve them in the future.



And in unrelated news, congrats to Turkmenistan for finally getting their own blog on EurasiaNet! For a newssource focused on Central Asia, its about time, so go to Sifting the Karakum for all of your sand-sifting and source-divining on the land between the Caspian and the Kopets. This reminds me how badly I need to update my blogroll...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

You, too, can live in the future at Santralistanbul!

There are few things in life worth taking a boat to a boat to a cemetery, then getting a private boat at that cemetery to get to. Fortunately, Santralistanbul is one of those things.

Equal parts energy museum, exhibition space, and steampunk throneroom, Santral is the old Ottoman Power Plant from the 1910's that got used until the 50s or so. They just recently - a decade or so, I think - turned it into what it is today, without changing too much. It has all of the gee-whiz technology stuff of the Museum of Science and Industry. All of the unabashed coolness of the StL City Museum. But with the addition of the "need to know" basis of esoteric transportation, being part of the campus of a Design School of Bilgi University, and having a couple really hip bars right there, its even better.

Sacrilege to my brothers and sisters in the 314, I'm sure. But Santralistanbul is the coolest tech/futurist museum I've been to. I haven't even mentioned the Magical Musical Box or Whatever. Which won't load because computers frighten me.

That said, they're really missing something here, in my mind. There could've been something fantastic with future energy...hydrogen, rare earths, hydropower, etc. I hope they expand into that. Watch this space...if they can turn this Santralistanbul into 21st Century Istanbul that keeps on getting talked up in some circles, it could be (even more) fantastic.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"...The God that you do not believe in has blessed our president with victory."

Title courtesy of a Matt Tiabbi interview, because, y'know, he'd have something darkly sarcastic to say, too. I've kind've run into a cynical streak that comes with reading too much eXiled and too many books that talk about "being on the front lines of an Empire you don't know exists" and all of that. But look. As a self-referencing, egotistic, obnoxious blogger, I have an important message for all of you about to begin a travel blog.

The country you are about to visit does not exist for your self-actualization. Authenticity is Complicated? Nooo. This? Stupid. That? Wretchingly awful. Lets discuss.

  1. "Sure, travel companies will charge you a lot of money to offer up a “real” experience, but what you’re purchasing is no more or less authentic for its exclusivity." Travel companies also speak the local language and get you hooked up with events you would never find otherwise. If you're traveling for a week or two, you're not going to wake up one day and speak Thai. This is ok. You're traveling to take pretty pictures and tell cool stories. If you wanted to experience life as a Thai does, you'd burn your passport and somehow shade those baby blues. So deal with the fact that your a foreigner and are seeing a country through foreigner's eyes. That isn't going to change.
  2. "Coffee is not just coffee when it is a glass mug of Malay espresso and sweetened condensed milk, served on a sticky 85 degree day in a Kedai Kopi in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, with a steaming bowl of lahksa." Ooooh, look at the lady who went to Indonesia! Did YOU go to Indonesia? Well, I guess you wouldn't understand. It's not just coffee, its sooo SENSUAL. I'll make you some right now, but you won't GET IT, will you? You just can't be in BORNEO if you're in Columbus. Listen, you don't want me to take details for granted? How to do that, make 120-photo Facebook albums and update my Fbook status every 15 minutes from my iPhone? What the blue fuck? Some of us may not have time on our pleasure-cruises to take copious notes on everything we've done with eyes open. We have lives to attend to as well. Live in the fucking moment once in a while instead of impressing people back home.
  3. "‘Existential migration’ is conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one's homeland and becoming a foreigner." Looks like someone read their Walden. What exactly are you learning about existence, pray tell? Is it that English-speakers can get paid the world-over? That getting drunk in fascinating locales makes for wonderful stories and ugly tattoos? That nothing bad can happen to white people, no matter how different the local people look? That you can get some solid strange if you're a dude with a black baby in your Facebook picture?* I love how this study came from the US...I wonder if Mujahidin count as existential migrants? Or Gulenists and Jesuits? Or is our study sample solely suburban volk?
"But Aslan Juhayman," you may ask, "aren't you a foreigner who has left home to live in a foreign place? Twice?" The answer, my friend, is yes. I am a suburban dude who left home. I had my reasons. They are, at the moment, intensely personal. I am, I would wager to say, not perfect. And I also wouldn't include Third-culture kids in this snark, because that's a whole other interesting phenomenon.

I'm a huge fan of travel. I love what de Botton has written on the subject. I sincerely think that everyone should, at some point, get out of the neighborhood they grew up in, and not just to kill someone from a different neighborhood, either. But let's not wear ourselves out with the back-patting. The Study Abroad of us are incredibly fortunate. We have the opportunity to do some really cool things. But just having an opportunity doesn't make us special. As the saying goes, waking up on third base doesn't mean you hit a triple.

So don't let me stop you from taking pretty pictures and writing funny stories. I should hasten to add, however, that there are lots of interesting angles out there about framing narratives and the such. I'll even be writing about them in the future. There is a lot you can learn about yourself by traveling, of course. All I ask is this: remember that the country you are visiting doesn't give a damn about you. The country does not care whether you live or die, have a great time or are caught in the rain, fall in love or catch the clap from a hooker. In Turkey, for example, 70 million people will go about their days tomorrow without caring if I can figure out this damn OpenERP at work tomorrow.

I am not important because I'm an American. I'm just lucky enough to have one of dem blue passports. But that passport won't protect me if I get drunk and punch out a Turkish dude. That passport won't open doors (except for the consulates). I'm also fortunate, in a way, that I don't get looked at as an American often. I'm lucky that when I open my mouth, people seem to think "wow, that Turk dresses funny and talks like an absolute moron" as much as they think "that American knows six verbs, we should congratulate him!"

But when all of us objectify the locals as allowing us to see ourselves better, its disgusting. They don't care about us, in a way. Each individual Turk (or Thai, or Afghan, or whatever) has their own individual needs and cares that cannot be boiled down into a "Turks feel ___ about Americans" or "The people are so courteous" in any ingenuous way. Complex issue is complex. And that American passport, and the visa you paid for, is all about you finding yourself out, and has nothing about you changing lives or Opening Rare Windows. If you want to do Anth, get a degree. Otherwise take pretty pictures and write snarky posts about tourists.

*=does not apply if you are black, obviously. Then people just assume you have a Baby Momma.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Good Walk Ruined

You would think that it would be easy to get from Arnavutkoyustu to Arnavutkoy, right? You start at the top of the hill, and then you walk downhill.

I did that and ended up in Levent. And ended up walking uphill. It's like I crossed dimensions somewhere around Ortakoydere.

One thing I did stumble into, that was pretty cool, was the Arnavutkoy Jewish Cemetery. Pretty neat-looking joint at night, definitely looked like the Ruisdael painting. But it's awfully embarrassing to catch a cab on a deserted street, ask to go to Arnavutkoy, and then have like, a 1km, 4-lira, taxi ride.

.
Shoddy  execution, but worth it for the cemetery. I feel kinda dumb for having an adventure when I'm just trying to sleep, though.

Here's the navel-gazing and OMGIstanbul stories you get from this blog. Fascinating, huh?

The Pole is Raised. The Doors are Opened.

The Guardian is reporting on the opening of the Khan Shatyr in Almaty. For as much as we here tend to smirk at Nazarbayev's grandiosity, I do have to say that the Khan Shatyr is a lot more successful of a building then anything else he's built in Astana.

In construction, it looked like part Apollo Program, part Aggro-Crag, and part towering hymn to neo-Constructionist Architecture.  The Guardian focuses more on the people at the opening and their own Troubling Questions about Nazarbayev then the building itself, as one might expect:
The Khan Shatyr is the latest vanity project initiated by Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's increasingly autocratic president. Its opening ceremony, launched with a performance by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and closed with a burst of fireworks, was timed to coincide with Astana day, a new holiday to celebrate the country's capital. It was attended by Nazarbayev, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Turkish president Abdullah Gul and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, among others.
But as much fun as Kremlinology and star-gazing could be, the article doesn't do the structure justice. Some of the Astana-based folks here would know better than me whether this is truly public architecture, made for the people to live and play in during the winter (my vote is for "no, definitely not" if you're curious). But the buzz within Kazakhstan is truly remarkable. And this a whole lot prettier and more coherent than anything else built in Astana (or Ashgabat, or Tashkent...) any time recently.

Michael Hancock went into the details about 18 months ago, so I'll just link to him rather than rehash 'em. Yup, they got the carpark and every other amenity promised shoved in there. And there are even more pretty pictures now. Is it the most munificent use of natural resource funds? No. But it is capable of being a symbol of the new Central Asia that'll deflect rote sayings about the Silk Road and swarthy Muslims. It's a step in the right direction.

Even if, as Geoff Manaugh so eloquently puts it,
...the building cuts an unlikely profile in its only semi-urban context. At dusk, through Webster's lens, it looks less like a structure parachuted in from the future, than the shell of an old expo whose excitement has long since faded. 
Even plastic-topped, beach-holding super structures can't defeat a summer evening's ennui.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

...it's called Project Mayhem

 John Robb is up to his usual insanity. And I say that with nothing but kindness. He notes how insurgents in Afghanistan are targeting contractors working on large-scale projects. He says that
...this type of targeting increased costs by 50-100% and seriously delayed (or fully stopped) projects.  This is typically much more effective than an attack on military personnel, although it appears that in today's attack DAI got lucky.
 This in a vacuum is not much more than a statement of fact. But this is John Robb. Nothing ever sits in a vacuum.
Yet, in modern western societies, this elite group and their specialists are able to dissociate themselves from jobs when it comes to their private lives.  They live unencumbered within our impersonal society.  This window of vulnerability creates a yawning opportunity for innovative forms of disruptive non-violent protest.
 He then goes on to describe turning a "coercive tool" like the Chinese Human Flesh Search Engine into an "online game". He emphasizes the non-violent aspect of this, but the backbone is awfully similar to the contractor attacks in Afghanistan. It's really just open-source intelligence gathering. It's studying a target and finding out where his weaknesses and your strengths can be best leveraged. In Afghanistan, it's violent attacks on contractors in the open ground when they're out of their compounds. In the internet, it's targeting weak links in their online identity. In all honesty, it sounds a whole lot like Fight Club.

There are two different angles I'd like to take on this. The first is that the heavy-industry contractors are some of the most gloriously imperialistic folks in the whole Mission Civilatrise. I realize that sentence sounds a bit more politically inflammatory than I meant it, but its still a lot of white-folks building white-folk stuff for white-folk use. The whole "OMG MINERALS!" aside, there's been an awful rate-of-return on the projects going on in Afghanistan. Using attack-magnets to build huge projects doesn't help (which is why I'm such a huge proponent of seeding the country with small projects).

Secondly, Mr. Robb's "game" sounds an awful lot like a pet-project I've been wanting to run for a while (and was Plan A for a bit this summer until I stumbled into Istanbul instead. It's the sort of thing that NewEurasia would be wonderful with (and that its founders I'm sure would not be interested in); creating a database of corruption in Central Asia. Create a list of the corrupt cops, bogus mayors, and other such scam artists anonymously in order to scorn and shame them. Think of it as the complete and utter opposite of Registan's "The Murdered Journalists of Central Asia" Memorial. It's the sort of extra-legal, non-violent, thing that an anonymously attended blog hosted in a foreign country could do great things with. I'm not sure how to conquer the culture of fear, but I think that fighting back (to a reasonable extent, of course) is a great place to start.

Both of these are theories that I'd love to flesh out in the upcoming weeks. Watch this space.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Internet is on Our Side. We Will Bury You.

Josh Foust just posted an article by an ex-golfer (ha! I bet Mr. Daly's never heard that) on the Truth of what's going on in Kyrgyzstan.

I'm sure Josh can understand a bit of skepticism coming his way after all of the skepticism he's launched in the past. And as sure as I am that Daly's a great guy with great sources, I don't see the Neville Chamberlain comparison. No politician would be caught dead today with saying stuff about "far away people in a far away land."

Daly's upset that Maxim Bakiyev is filing for asylum in the UK, despite an Interpol warrant for his head. And yeah, this is sketchy. I fully believe that Maxim is an awful bit corrupt and a good bit sinister. But that's far, far, away from the ensuing character assassination:
Maxim subsequently met with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan representatives in Dubai while Janysh brokered deals with Afghan Taliban and Tajik fighters, commenting: “The transfer of militants to the south of the republic was made on the eve of the June events from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province via Tajikistan’s Khorog and Murghab districts. Cooperation in transferring [militants] was made by a former Tajik opposition commander and drug baron, whose contact was Janysh Bakiyev.”
If you're going to bring up the IMU bogeyman, you ought to prove that they, y'know, exist first. Because just saying stuff like "Oh yeah they met with these bad dudes in Dubai" doesn't prove anything. And the tape that...
purportedly details Maxim Bakiyev and President Bakiyev’s brother, Janysh, who still remains at large in southern Kyrgyzstan, discussing plans to arm groups to spread chaos across the south of Kyrgyzstan in June, seeking 500 “bastards” to foment unrest.
"Purportedly" is an awful big term. Much like Schwartz (and every other sane purviewer of events, I should mention), I'd rather see a lot more evidence than a videotape and a dude with an axe to grind before I send the Lawyin' Lynch Mob over to Maxim's pad in London.

And even more amusingly...are we seriously expecting the legal system to run its course and bring up a result that the Crusaders for Good and Justice in Kyrgyzstan will like? It's not that I'm NOT a CGJK, but I highly doubt that Maxim or Janysh are going to see the inside of a jail cell. At this point, its just a matter of whether they take refuge in the UK, in the US, or somewhere else. Just as long as it isn't Kyrgyzstan - or, in the interest of regional security, anywhere else where they understand Russian.

The kind of firepower that Maxim is hiring, legal-wise, is going to overwhelm any umbrage that Daly tries to use. Especially if he doesn't have any stronger facts then what is published there. I'm not going to pretend I have a better idea of what happened in Kyrgyzstan then Daly or really any of the fine people at Registan (which is why I haven't written anything there in a while), but I'd like to see answers before accusations. Even if accusations are part of the process as some may see fit, I don't think that'll help Kyrgyzstan one bit if it looks like the playpen of kleptocrats. These grenades of accusations don't do anything positive.

Book Review: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

This has taken quite some time to get thrown onto the internet, mostly because I've been working and moving into new, not-disgusting, digs (i.e. OMG YES ARNAVUTKOY). As I start getting into more of a schedule, more interesting posts will be put here. So there will be more than just going to Galata Evi with Ben.

As much as I'm not a fan of satires, I had to do a balancing act with Absurdistan. Yeah, its told from the point of a sorta-Russian, sorta-American joke of a human being. Yes there's the awkward rapping and pathetic 'hood queen. This is what bad books are made of. But with a Caspian setting, mockery of the American military-industrial complex, and lots of funny little Turkic and Kartveli men, it's actually kind of awesome.

Whenever I read a good book about the region, I find myself thinking, "my God, somebody actually did their research here!" This is no different, Shteyngart definitely did his research here. He knows enough about Azerbaijan and Georgia (and Daghestan, I think) to use them to create his fictional Absurdsvani. And he's a good enough writer to pull off the satire with as few cringe-inducing moments as possible. This is a good thing.

The best thing, though is a chapter which is just a grant proposal for a Holocaust Museum entitled "A Modest Proposal." Pretty much my favorite chapter I've read in a really long time. Its honest enough to be hilarious, and cagey enough to bite. I'm a huge, huge, fan.

So again, very funny book. A bit too esoteric, maybe, but the New York Times got it and loved it, so maybe not. And putting in himself as the antagonist was a pretty fantastic touch. There are probably enough bits for everyone to like it (I, for example, am a deaf-mute when it comes to New York references) so maybe...everyone will like it. I at least did.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

City is through the eye of the beholder

"Cities will be things you have delivered to you, like pizza, and they and their residents will be treated just as disposably." - BLDGBlog on Small Businesses with crazy dreams.

What causes "sense of place"? How do we know that we are Here instead of There, when we can pay and do both?

So now I'm here, working on this. The tourism industry is an interesting thing...the trick is to convince people they are somewhere else, somewhere exotic, without them having to sacrifice anything. Or instead, have them sacrifice just what they want in order to impress their friends back home. In a city like Istanbul, there are hundreds of iterations of the same ideal, and people can kind of tell when you're just selling something to them. So it's more fun, I think, to embrace the adventure, explore with them, and tell them just how exciting everything could be.

My job, in short, is to deliver a city. Because the same city can be given in different ways (LOL @ DesignObserver, heart @ the DO for doing Bukhara to begin with). I can hardly know the ins-n-outs of Istanbul, I just need to know the sorts of stuff that people want to see. Delivering an Authentic city on a week or two's notice...just-in-time Architectural History.

One of the most important lessons I've learned from history classes is that nobody really cares about the people. Especially in situations like this, they're background noise. And living here, its tough not to be an expat, tough not to have a couple of "My good Turkish friends" up on a stage for your old friends' approval. Its weird. There was a line in a book I read recently along the lines of "We're on the front line of an empire we don't even know exists." Be it about English teachers or whatever, we're all little minions in the American, Anglophone, empire. May as well be up front about it. The big question when living outside the home culture is basically "Am I trying to make people like me or am I trying to be like them?" And even though that introduces a dichotomy, the answer is always, yknow, complicated.

So it isn't the worst thing to do. There are other projects building up, and I get to say stuff like "Lets get this to the Albanians by the end of the week." And I get to leave my other, Bohemian, pied-terre for a new one on the water. Even if I lose a month's rent doing it.

So all of this running around means few posts. And especially few posts on what I want to be writing about. I hope to be changing that in the next couple of weeks. Just hang on and listen to the navel-gazing until then.